DEI Talks: An Interview with Tiffany Ng on Diversifying Carillon Repertoire

As defined by the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America (GCNA), a carillon is a musical instrument composed of at least 23 carillon bells, arranged in chromatic sequence, so tuned as to produce concordant harmony when many bells are sounded together. The University of Michigan is one of the only institutions in the world to house two carillon towers: the historic 53-bell Charles Baird Carillon in Burton Memorial Tower on Central Campus, and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Carillon on North Campus. The carillon is an instrument that serves as a landmark in many communities and impacts the distinct soundscape of the place. There are about 600 carillons in the world, many in western Europe and North America, and also on every continent except Antarctica.

Originating as time-telling signals in medieval times and later used as a musical instrument in the Low Countries, carillons have been historically defined by Eurocentric builders, composers, performers, and repertoire. Modern-day carillonists are now facing the challenge of reclaiming the instrument to better represent and speak to our diverse community.

Dr. Tiffany Ng, Associate Professor of Carillon at the University of Michigan, has devoted her time and energy to addressing this issue with her fellow carillonists, colleagues, and students. Undergraduate composition major Emmet Lewis and Dr. Ng together built a resource of inclusive and open access carillon repertoire and a 43-page International Bibliography of Carillon Music by Women, Transgender, and Nonbinary Composers, an interactive social impact calendar, and statistics on gender and ethnic diversity in professional carillon leadership and in repertoire performed at national and international carillon congresses.

The following interview with Dr. Tiffany Ng was conducted, transcribed, and edited by Yiqing Ma, a Ph.D. student in Music Theory and biweekly carillon recitalist at the Lurie Tower.


Yiqing Ma (YM):  I would like to discuss several of your projects on diversifying the carillon repertoire, including the one with undergraduate Emmet Lewis on the “Inclusive & Open Access Carillon Initiative” project. How would you describe these projects and what are the main goals of these projects?

Tiffany Kwan Ng (TKN): The carillon’s history dates back to the Protestant church in the Netherlands, and therefore the weight of that history has resulted in the carillon not really expanding beyond its repertoire based on the Christian church, male composers, and the Western classical canon.

Even in the 16th century, [when the process of globalization had already begun, and cities were becoming more cosmopolitan], people within the sonic horizon of the carillon may have had mixed feelings about hearing Christian bells. That is especially true in the present day—the carillon is a public instrument that now rings over much more diverse populations. Those instruments need to serve many listeners in order to justify the fact that we are a public instrument that everyone has to listen to, and that nobody can “opt out” of—not like a concert hall, right? You’re all automatically [listening].

I really have to credit Emmet Lewis, my research assistant and collaborator for two years through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), for making these work-intensive projects possible to complete. Some aspects of that project have been, for example, the creation of the “International Bibliography of Carillon Music by Women, Transgender, and Nonbinary Composers” that Emmet did heroic work of many, many hours to help me compile. The bibliography was a student-originated project. Carillon student Michelle Lam, who had graduated from Wellesley [College] and come to the University of Michigan after many years of carillon study, [pointed out to me that she] still had not played a piece by a woman composer at all, even though she had even gone to a women’s college. I asked myself, “How is this possible?” I realized that we didn’t have enough resources for students, or even [for] performers, who were looking for music by women composers, and so we decided to make the absolute most thorough resource that we could.

Another resource that I compiled as part of this multi-year project was an annotated bibliography of African American carillon music. There had been, over the years, some emails to the GCNA [the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America] email list asking for suggestions for what to play on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. These questions kept recurring, and nobody replied with suggestions. I figured that compiling this bibliography was just a symbolic act, because, at the time, there wasn’t really any published music by African American composers. There was a piece that was kind of considered published (it had been distributed in the Netherlands as a manuscript facsimile [“Carillon Dances” (1973) by Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson]). But, beyond that, we didn’t have original music by Black composers available in print. All we had was arrangements [of spirituals, gospel, Joplin, etc.]—but we had a lot—so I compiled those into the annotated bibliography with a note pointing out the paucity of actual music by African American composers and that we had to do better.

Part of the premise of both of these documents was to show concrete data that would highlight the fact that there was rampant inequality, essentially built into our repertoire, and it was easy to miss that or to allow that to fly under the radar—until we had compiled all of this data that was incontrovertible.

YM: As a carillon student in the studio, I’m very glad that now we have all these resources and repertoire to draw from, and to perform. Especially in the past year, I came to realize how important it is for us carillonists to present works that resonate with our diverse student body—so that carillon serves as a public instrument and influences the soundscape of the whole campus.

TKN: You’re right–the concerts that we actually program are of course the most forward and public-facing part of the project.

YM: And that comes to my second question. Was there any particular event that inspired you and Emmet Lewis to begin to work on this project?

TKN: My interest in carillon and inequality began when I accepted my position at the University of Michigan. Before [taking this position] I had maybe played carillon kind of once a week or so as part of wherever I was living and playing. Once I got here, the job was actually to play up to ten times a week. There are daily recitals at Burton Tower and daily recitals at Lurie Tower; we have alumni guests and students who play some of them, but people cancel, and sometimes I really do find myself playing almost ten recitals a week. So, just relying on my usual repertoire—the repertoire that I had been trained with and that I had heard everyone else playing—led to my taking a look back by the end of my first year and realizing that I had played pretty much almost all music by white men. When I thought about it in the public context of my job as university carillonist, I realized that I had inadvertently served for the entire year as a mouthpiece, essentially, for white patriarchy on campus.

I realized that I had to quickly change that by broadening my repertoire to represent diverse minorities and genders. By the time I received the university’s Shirley Verrett Award for my advocacy work for diversity equity and inclusion, I made a promise in my acceptance speech onstage that I would never again play a concert that didn’t include pieces by women and people of color composers—even if it was just one, I would always include something. Since then it’s been another couple of years, and I actually find it hard to even imagine that I would play a recital without multiple women and people of color because they now form such a large part of my repertoire. It takes a couple of years to change, but once that music becomes part of your repertoire, it’s just not that hard.

People who are just getting started in diversifying their citations, repertoire, whatever, sometimes worry that others will view them as just tokenizing underrepresented authors. But if you do it consistently, then over time, those authors become your central references, fundamentally shape your thinking and creativity, and others around you start to see them as central too.

YM: I remember the first time I went to Burton Tower for my first carillon lesson. I climbed all the way upstairs to the 9th floor and saw the series of posters of women composers. I was overly joyful; I knew I was at the right place. I am really glad to be witnessing all of these changes happening right now as we bring pieces that are outside of the canon in classical music [to the art of carillon performance].

TKN: It’s absolutely possible. We have to center our audiences. I realized that [much of the carillon repertoire] by white male composers is largely music that requires a Christian background to appreciate. [Playing] it was kind of a habit. It wasn’t a bad habit, it was just an overwhelming habit that pushed out all the rest of the opportunities. And changing one’s habits certainly takes a while, but after a couple of years, it’s become second nature.

I’m so glad you were inspired by those posters, too. Several years ago, I learned this term called the “dude wall” at a faculty meeting on climate. Sometimes, you will find this whole institutional wall full of portraits of the white “fathers” of a discipline. The faculty at this meeting discussed how it was problematic because, as a woman of color giving a speech, for example, in an auditorium with all of these white men looking down at you, it’s unwelcoming.

And so I thought about the fact that with classical music, “dude walls” are such a default form of ornamentation—all of these statuettes and busts of composers, like Beethoven and Mozart—and I realized I wanted to have the alternative to the dude wall. I did think about maybe putting up both portraits of men and women in the stairwell leading up to the carillon, but I decided that since there are so many dude walls, even having one all-women wall wasn’t going to counterbalance them at all, so it just made sense to have an all-women wall with diverse ethnicities. I was mindful of putting each of those posters a little bit higher than eye level so when people look at them, they have to look up.

YM: Were there any models for this project? Any that you designed the project based on, or which has a similar layout and/or initiative? I know that you also have other DEI-related works outside of carillon. Would you like to talk more about them?

TKN: I have been really inspired and have drawn a lot of energy each year from the Sphinx Organization. The Sphinx Organization was founded by SMTD alumni Aaron P. Dworkin and Afa S. Dworkin, and it fosters African American and Latinx talent in orchestral music. The year I joined the SMTD faculty, they started offering free tickets for all faculty to their annual “SphinxConnect” convention in Detroit. And I really wanted to learn all I could during that first year, so of course, I signed up. I’ve been going every year, and I have just heard, learned about so many initiatives around the country to diversify orchestral music and conservatory higher education.

Mentorship has been so important too. For example, at SphinxConnect a couple of years ago, Margaret Lioi, the CEO of Chamber Music America, was kind enough to do a mentorship lunch with me when I was first getting started on trying to build national momentum or interest in diversifying the carillon repertoire and diversifying the way we taught. She gave me such valuable advice over the course of that lunch, especially that gathering concrete data—numbers!—was really the way to show people that there was a need to act—and to act quickly—on issues of inequality within the discipline. Thanks to her, the bibliography of music by women, non-binary, and transgender composers begins with an entire introduction that is filled with data visualizations.

YM: Indeed, that’s very striking. I really liked what you said, actually: there’s no way more obvious than stating how important the issue is than to begin with that data visualization.

TKN: Yes, and for that, I credit Emmet Lewis, because in my day-to-day professor life, I do not have time to sit down and go through the entire program book of a carillon convention and count every man and woman and gender-nonconforming composer, to break down all of the data, and disaggregate all the data into charts! But Emmet did all of that and produced those charts. He’s amazing.

YM: Have you encountered obstacles along the way, and how did you overcome them?

TKN: I think the first time I realized that this kind of work wasn’t legible to everyone was when colleague Dr. Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra and I started brainstorming a new and more inclusive carillon method book together; beginner carillon repertoire was almost all, you know, white male composers, etc. When we were shopping this idea around, one of the people we brought it to actually said, “oh, we have to remain neutral, so we can’t take on this kind of project.” So, to this person, “neutrality” meant maintaining the social order of inequality. It just seemed like such an obvious fallacy. I realized, as this was the first person we had approached, that thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in a nuanced way was not necessarily as widespread as I was hoping it would be. It’s fine: Eventually, Dr. Ruiter-Feenstra published her own Global Rings book of music from diverse cultures for carillon students, with me helping as editor.

More recently, when Emmet and I published the bibliography of music by women, nonbinary, and transgender composers, I think because I announced it on the national/international carillon mailing list, the response was different from everything I had published before in a journal. Announcing something on a mailing list, it turns out, is different because everybody can immediately “reply all.” So, very quickly, a bunch of transphobic trolls started jumping all over this bibliography. It got to the point where a key individual (who had been an inspirational feminist mentor of mine) delivered this ad-hominem attack on me, hypothesizing that the reason I’d published this was because I was uncomfortable with my own gender. And it developed further from there into—I’m not even joking—people talking about penis size on the national mailing list. So it was a huge dumpster fire, and I regretted that some of the composers listed in the bibliography had to see this unfold.

YM: I’m so sorry to hear that.

TKN: I mean, it was also a learning experience. I had to become more resilient. I’ve experienced online trolling before, but this was at a new level: to be trolled in front of my global profession. And a lot of people didn’t know what to do [in that situation], especially young people—[many of them] contacted me feeling very discouraged, feeling like the discipline was much more oppressive than they had even realized. I encouraged them to just ignore the trolls and to post any positive reactions they wanted on the mailing list in the hopes that a growing majority of positive reactions would eventually drown out the negative ones.

Some wonderful and brave colleagues, including women and queer folks, spoke out directly against the trolls. But I was also surprised at the number of white men who contacted me privately to say, “oh, I’m so sorry that this happened, thank you for doing what you do,” without taking public action. On the one hand, anyone who feels endangered by an outbreak of transphobia should take care of themselves. On the other hand, I feel tired thinking about how some white men profess allyship but stand by and leave BIPOC and women to do the work of DEI.

YM: I’m so sorry to hear about all that.

TKN: Well, you know, one good thing that came out of it: the President of the GCNA hired Hollaback!—a bystander intervention training nonprofit, to give us two bystander intervention training sessions, required for all GCNA officers and open to the rest of the membership as well.

YM: I hope that will bring a bit of change in the overall climate of the GCNA. So, since you mentioned that this was a multi-year project, I was wondering how you envision the future of this project? Where is it going and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

TKN: This is a multi-year effort, but that’s really just an academic way of saying that this is going to be lifelong work. The push for equality will never end—even if we ever got there, we would still need so much vigilance to keep up whatever equality we achieve in our society.

So yes, this work will never end. I do hope that once I get tenure, I’ll have some more time to work on diversity in ways that don’t get reflected very well in tenure and promotion portfolios. For example, I’d like to work harder to recruit underrepresented students to the studio: indigenous students, Black students, Latinx students. I’d like to work harder to raise the money for scholarships to cover the course fee for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who currently don’t have access to carillon lessons—I actually had one student whom I admitted who couldn’t take the class because she couldn’t afford the $250 course fee.

I am really happy to see that DEI initiatives are becoming more mainstream in the profession. I’ve seen them pop up around the globe, and seen more people speaking out and starting their own initiatives. I’d like to eventually become someone who is more here to support and help propel national and international movements and coalitions.

I would also like to finally complete and publish Music by Black Composers: Carillon, Vol. 1, the edition of beginner music by Black composers arranged for carillon that I’ve been working on with the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation and that my students have helped me develop.

YM: I can’t wait to see it. You have also done work on other related social justice issues. For example, arranging civil rights protest music—can you talk more about that?

TKN:The Music of ‘March’: A Civil Rights Carillon Collection was inspired by the graphic novel autobiography of John Lewis, who co-authored it with Nate Powell and Andrew Aydin in three volumes. In the pages of their books, protest music and its role in John Lewis’s nonviolent resistance to white supremacists was so vividly illustrated. I was really struck by it, and I realized I didn’t know a lot of these songs. I hadn’t really studied civil rights music, so I worked hard to identify each of those fragments—it reminded me of all the musicologists who go and identify tiny fragments of music that appear in medieval art, for example—but this was something published in the 21st century. I even reached out to the authors to confirm one of my identifications, and then arranged them all for carillon for the authors’ joint appearance here at the University of Michigan for the Penny Stamps Speaker Series. Various donors stepped forward to support this project and to commission diverse composers, including, for example, Yvette Janine Jackson, to create these arrangements that we eventually published with a cover illustrated by Nate Powell himself! All publication proceeds support Our House Georgia, a homeless shelter in Representative Lewis’s [former] district in Atlanta. So, on the one hand, I was really happy to see us being able to support social justice initiatives on the ground, while also then being able to send this book out to the rest of the country filled with protest music that they can play whenever they deem appropriate, whether that’s for labor movement events, civil rights commemorations, or anything else they dream up. Protest songs are famously resilient and reusable in so many ways. For example, one of the pieces in the book arranged by Joey Brink, which originated as a union song by a woman named Florence Reece, was later given new meaning in the civil rights movement, and it still has many lives ahead of it as protest music. I hope that this book helps movements around the country feel solidarity from the towering symbolic instruments of their town, or campus, or city.

I’m also trying to arrange more popular music by people of color, particularly from Motown since we’re in Michigan—like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” It’s got such a widely relatable message and charisma, and I hope my published arrangement can be useful for all kinds of events. Having a plan for when to play what is also crucial. I should again credit Emmet. At my request, he looked into all of the national commemorative days, weeks, and months and created a calendar that performers can draw on to plan concerts in solidarity with different causes. For example, I’d arranged Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” to play every year on National Coming Out Day. I wanted to find the other cyclical events that I could program meaningful solidarity music for, so Emmet did that research, and now students are using the calendar as well.

You know, with a job that involves daily concerts, I get bored trying to choose so much music if it doesn’t relate to something that’s happening outside the tower in our community. It’s so great to be able to make a statement through the tower.

YM: Yes. I guess I never did realize the importance of the meaning of music until you asked me to play at these noontime recitals. I just researched what day it was in any culture and found music that fit the day. I remember, on March 11th, the 10th anniversary of the earthquake, I thought immediately, “it’s like an obligation, I have to play something in solidarity.”

TKN: Yes! We tell time on campus, right? I have a friend, Nick Frisch who does East Asian studies at Yale, and he once jokingly said to me, “You know, Tiffany, with this new job in Michigan, you’ve become Father Time.” I laughed and thought “that’s kind of funny”—I like how it’s kind of subversive—a petite Asian woman as “Father Time,” traditionally depicted as an old white man with a long beard. But I eventually realized that I do not want to be “Father Time.”  I want to be Mother Time. And my practice of being Mother Time is really different: Father Time is used as a regulatory, warning, shaming symbol for the relentlessness of time and how it wears you down, for example. But when I think of the cycles that our carillon follows on campus, we offer cycles of support, cycles of solidarity, and cycles of community responsiveness.

For example, after the Pulse nightclub shootings, organist/carillonist Colin Knapp organized the School of Music, Theatre & Dance community to came together and do an entire requiem for the victims in Hill Auditorium. Afterward, I tolled our lowest bell 49 times to sound and to commemorate the 49 victims as people came out of Hill Auditorium and went home.

After the Tree of Life synagogue shooting [in Pittsburgh], we played Jewish arrangements for the full week to support Jewish students and staff on campus who were struggling with the trauma. That week, that is the kind of time that is important—a time when carillonists can play a role in creating moments and places for healing.

Those recitals, they’re a time of acknowledgment, a time for people temporarily, even if it’s just for half an hour, to come together and to reflect on mass tragedies; and when good things happen then to reflect on shared joy as well. As Ann Arbor celebrated in the streets when the [November 2020] election results came out, I ran up to the tower and played a joyful recital to join in on the citywide party.

YM: Yes! I remember that moment! Was there anything that surprised you during the process of completing this project? Since we talked about the obstacles, were there any positives or surprises along the way?

TKN: Actually, one of the surprises has been my own journey to understand the different kinds of diversity that can guide what we play as carillonists. Obviously, there’s gender and race, but class is another major factor in canon-making, which I missed as a classically trained musician.

When I first came here, I was lucky that one of the first faculty to welcome and help me was Nadine Hubbs in the Women’s [and Gender] Studies Department. Hubbs is the author of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, which points out how country music has been misleadingly equated with homophobic listeners, which then flattens out all of the inclusive and subversive activity within country music and reinforces the middle class’s illusion that they’re really enlightened and that homophobia is the exclusive realm of the working class. Not being a big country music listener, I hadn’t been able to make lot of progress myself in arranging country music for carillon. But graduate student carillonist Kavitha Lobo had taken a seminar with Professor Hubbs, and wanted to organize a whole concert of country music for the carillon. Kavitha recruited my students, and, as it turns out, they had lots of favorite country songs! This was not information my students really shared within our institutional environment until Kavitha created a space free of these class-based taboos. I helped them work on these fantastic arrangements and they played a whole concert. [The concert] turned out to be sort of bittersweet in its meaning, too, because their concert had, just by coincidence, been scheduled a couple of days after the [2017] Las Vegas country music festival mass shooting. So, it turned out to have a bit of a memorial focus as well, but it was mostly celebratory. I hope that we can continue to make progress in working class inclusion. Plus, Kavitha Lobo’s arrangement of “Redneck Woman” by Gretchen Wilson was incredible—like this feminist country music declaration.

YM: Last, are there ways for people reading this to get involved and to have access to these resources? Do you have a website, Facebook, blogs, etc.?

TKN: Definitely start with the bibliographies. Also, hidden inside our bibliography of music by women, nonbinary, and transgender composers are YouTube and SoundCloud playlists.

The U-M carillon program has a blog. Its pinned post is for the Wikipedia Art+Feminism Edit-a-thon; that happens annually here at the university library, and I bring my students to work on articles about women in carillon history. So, we have an ongoing list that we update every year of women whose articles need expansion or need to be written in the first place, and people anywhere can participate in expanding those articles. I encourage any women reading this to attend a local or virtual Art+Feminism edit-a-thon and learn to edit, because the vast majority of Wikipedia editors are men and so many perspectives are urgently missing.

In a forthcoming issue, the GCNA Bulletin, the only peer-reviewed carillon journal in North America, will publish my reflection on centering DEI in my pedagogy at the University of Michigan. Journal editor Dr. Kimberly Schaefer has been incredibly supportive of DEI work and has used her platform to elevate it. I’m so grateful to her. I’m also grateful to the I Care If You Listen blog, which gave me a chance to center my AAPI and diasporic heritage that’s informed my work as a classical musician, but that I rarely talk about.

YM:  It is great to hear about, as you mentioned, the mentorship and the overall environment are very encouraging to do such work.

TKN: Fortunately yes, and I want to thank all the listeners who have written or spoken to me over the years, to share the impact of our diverse everyday repertoire on their lives. For example, Willie Sullivan, Development Coordinator at the [performing arts nonprofit] University Musical Society, wrote to me after hearing me play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” several times about how much it had meant to him, having grown up in a Black church where they sang it every weekend and then moved to a place where his colleagues didn’t even know the song. He shared how hearing it played on the carillon brought tears to his eyes. That moved me so deeply and motivated me to do more of this work.

The Director of U-M ArtsEngine, Deb Mexicotte, likewise told me that at some point she heard a Jewish song from her childhood being played on the Lurie Carillon. It had been over a year since she had heard that performance, but when we met for the first time, she immediately wanted to share how meaningful that moment had been because it had made her feel wrapped up in the sounds of home. These days, I’m starting to meet people who tell me about similarly meaningful listening experiences, but it turns out they were listening to songs my students had arranged and performed!

It’s just amazing to me how long these moments of recognition and of feeling seen thanks to the carillon have stayed with people, and how they carry that around until they happen to run into a carillonist and can share it.  It tells me how much of an impact we have, and how much more we need to do so everybody gets to have this experience.

YM: Definitely. When I hear those folk songs from my childhood on the carillon during these Chinese holidays, I feel so welcome, nostalgic and happy. So, thank you for all your work.

TKN:  Thank you for being part of that work! This progress has not been my sole work by any stretch of the imagination. So many people have set an example for me, collaborated on, participated in, and supported it, right down to our listeners who make thoughtful suggestions; the list would be so long. We’re at an inflection point where DEI carillon leadership is emerging across the globe! This is not work that would ever make sense for one to do by oneself—we work in coalition for change.


Tiffany Ng (she/her/hers) is Associate Professor of Carillon and University Carillonist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She holds a doctorate in musicology and new media studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the recipient of both the Shirley Verrett Award and the Henry Russel Award for U-M faculty. Her research concerns gender and race in public soundscapes, queering keyboard studies, postcoloniality and bells, and connections between cold war technology and diplomacy to the historicist revival of organ and carillon building in America and the Netherlands. Her museum work includes a bell exhibit at the Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments and the catalog of the Mechelen Carillon Museum in Belgium. Ng’s concert career spans festivals in seventeen countries in Europe, Australia, Asia, and North America, and she has taught masterclasses from Yale to Eastman. She has premiered over 60 works, collaboratively pioneered models for audience-interactive carillon experiences, and significantly increased the diversity of composers writing for carillon as well as the American repertoire for carillon and electronics. Ng also holds a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music in organ performance, a diploma magna cum laude from the Royal Carillon School “Jef Denyn,” and a bachelor’s degree from Yale University in English and music. She serves on the Council of the American Musicological Society, on the board of the Westfield Center for Early Keyboard Studies, on the Publications Committee of the Organ Historical Society, and chairs the Archives Committee of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America.


This interview is part of our DEI Talks series, which endeavors to showcase resources and initiatives dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion in Western classical music. To read other features in the series, click here. If you have suggestions for other initiatives we should feature, or if you would like to write a feature yourself, please contact us at mpinthemoment@umich.edu.

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